Last week, the City Council voted 4-3 to approve a proposal by Mayor Harry Sidh requiring confirmation of commission appointments by a majority vote of the council. Sidhu, Mayor Pro Tem Lucille Kring and Councilmembers Steve Faessel and Trevor O’Neil voted “yes” while Councilmembers Denise Barnes, Jordan Brandman and Jose F. Moreno were opposed.
Two years ago, the Tait-Moreno council majority changed commission appointments to make them district-based, giving each councilmember absolute discretion in appointing their commissioners (with preference given to appointing residents of their districts).
A lively council discussion ensued, providing on opportunity for District 3 Councilman Jose F. Moreno to engage in some rhetorical excess.
The change proposed by Mayor Sidhu was not an unusual in municipalities with district-based elections: Orange County supervisors are elected by districts, and county commission appointments are made on a by-district basis – yet they require approval by a majority vote of the Board of Supervisors. Other Orange County cities – including those that elect councilmembers by-district – have similar provisions.
Moreno complained with a straight face that this was “tyrannical” – a ridiculous trivialization of that term. If Councilman Moreno wants to know what tyranny looks like, he ought to take a trip to Cuba, or Venezuela. There are various modes for appointing members of municipal commissions, entirely consistent with representative government. Commissions like the the Planning Commission have city-wide plenary authority; it’s entirely reasonable to require some buy-in from a majority of the council on appointments to this commission and others.
No county supervisor has declared their appointment system to be “tyrannical.”
It’s a doubly odd complaint considering that Moreno’s role as the lead plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit that led to the end of at-large council elections in Anaheim. A few months into the litigation, Moreno’s legal team rejected a proposal by the city to pause the lawsuit if a districting initiative was placed on the November 2012 ballot. Moreno’s lawyers wanted Anaheim’s “the election system to be changed without subjecting the question to a vote of the entire electorate, which is equivalent to an at-large election in its discriminatory effect on Latinos.”
Nothing tyrannical about that!
Moreno also claimed the majority-confirmation requirement was inconsistent with the voters’ 2014 approval of Measure L, which moved Anaheim to by-district elections. Referring to the 2016 restructuring of commission appointments, Moreno said “That was the decision by the council, I believe in its wisdom, to say voters would like to have their voices institutionalized in city government.”
Nothing was said about commission appointments during the Measure L campaign: not in ballot arguments, or in campaign communications or any other arguments made to the voters. It’s problematic, to say the least, for anyone to divine voter intent regarding how commission appointments should be made.
The city council, as the people’s elected representatives, had every right to change the commission appointment process in 2016. Similarly, last week the council – acting as the people’s elected representatives – modified the 2016 restructuring.
Absent a clearly-worded ballot measure, that’s as close as one is going to get as far as expressing the “will of the people” concerning the commission appointment process.
Moreno also pointed out – correctly – that prior to re-structuring city commissions, there were few commissioners from West Anaheim. Moreno argued that’s because “left to our own devices, we tend to depend on our own social networks” – which has some validity. It’s also true that councilmembers choose from the available pool of applicants – and some areas of a city often tend to generate more applicants than others.
Either way, it’s clear the 2016 city commission restructuring – though needlessly radical and abrupt – largely ensures representation for all parts of the city.
However, Moreno stretched his “social networks” point into a slam on at-large elections, saying it’s evidence “why at-large systems don’t tend to work for true democracy.”
It would have been helpful if Moreno defined his idea of what constitutes “true democracy.” Even so, casting at-large systems as antithetical to “true” democracy is nonsense.
At-large v. by-district elections each have their advantages and disadvantages, and the choice between them involves trade-offs. One advantage of at-large elections is the councilmembers governing the city are accountable to the entire electorate. That is lost in the transition to by-district elections. When Councilman Moreno was in the majority and proposing ordinances effecting all Anaheim residents, he was accountable only to a small percentage of Anaheim voters.
Furthermore, if at-large election systems are so harmful to “true democracy,” then why didn’t Moreno get rid of it when he was a member of the Anaheim City School District Board of Education? The same criteria cited as justification for the California Voting Rights Act lawsuit Moreno filed against Anaheim were even more emphatically present in his school district. By-district elections could have been implemented in the district by an act of the school board, yet Moreno made no effort to do so while he was a member of it.
Requiring a majority vote of the council to confirm commission appointments injects an element of broader accountability into the process, and is perfectly consistent with representative government.